MacKay orders RCAF to take another look at used U.S. presidential choppers

OTTAWA – Some helicopters from U.S. President Barack Obama’s cast-off fleet may yet find their way into the service of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The Canadian Press has learned Defence Minister Peter MacKay recently ordered National Defence to take another look at whether some of the nine VH-71 aircraft — purchased for spare parts to keep this country’s search-and-rescue choppers flying — can be made fully operational.

MacKay plans to tour the hangar, at IMP Aerospace in Nova Scotia, where the discarded presidential fleet has been housed since the Harper government spent $164 million to acquire it from the Pentagon.

Both the air force and the department’s material branch have insisted the American helicopters were only suitable for spares because they do not have an air worthiness certificate, nor an electronics suite for search and rescue.

But MacKay, in an interview with The Canadian Press, says he’s ordered a review to see what sort of work would be needed to bring as many as four of them on to the flight line.

“This is something we’re very serious about,” he said, noting it would be cheaper than buying additional CH-149 Cormorants.

“I’m not saying it would be cost-neutral but I can’t think of anything that would have more of an immediate impact” on search and rescue operations, MacKay said.

MacKay ordered the second look before last week’s searing auditor general report, in which National Defence was told it didn’t have enough new aircraft or the right kind of helicopters devoted to saving lives in the hinterlands.

Specifically, Michel Ferguson took aim at the air force’s use of CH-146 Griffon utility helicopters out of Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ont. The light chopper cannot make it all of the way to the Arctic or other far-flung destinations without refuelling.

The Griffons were placed at Central Canada’s major search-and-rescue hub because the Cormorants, purchased by a previous Liberal government, faced routine, often infuriating, spare parts shortages.

The problem has largely been eliminated with the purchase of the used VH-71s, which are similar to the EH-101 airframe on which the Cormorant is based.

The air force has also managed to acquire a much larger stock of spares from the aircraft-manufacturer, AugustaWestland.

Maj.-Gen Mike Hood, the deputy commander of the air force, said outfitting some of the former presidential helicopters with mission systems “remains a consideration, but going forward we are focused primarily on the parts and enabling our present system.”

He was cautious in his assessment of whether the U.S. planes could be converted.

“I’m certainly not going to preclude anything,” Hood said in a brief interview. “We’re going to have to work with industry to see what is the art of the possible.”

Opposition MPs have often asked why some of the VH-71s could not be converted and pressed into service to relieve the overburdened search-and-rescue system, and now MacKay is asking the question himself.

“I know they were concerned about spares, but I think our Cormorants are in a much better place than they were several years ago, and we have dealt with things,” MacKay said.

Internal defence department documents say the number of aircraft sidelined because of a lack of parts on any given day has been cut to two from five.

The Canadian military bought 15 Cormorants, but lost one in a training accident in 2006.

The fleet has suffered a variety of problems, including cracks in the tail rotor and corrosion.

Shortly after taking office, the Obama administration cancelled the VH-71 program of new presidential helicopters, which was started under former president George W. Bush.

The projected cost had doubled to US $13 billion.

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